HANAHAN — Gregg Hill admits he was a little skeptical about taking a class to learn American Sign Language.
But the more Hill — a project manager for Goodwill Services — thought about it, the more he felt like it was a good idea.
Hill has about a dozen employees who are either hard of hearing or deaf working with him at the massive Goodwill Services Hanahan warehouse that serves the local Navy base. In the past he had used sticky notes, text messages or write out conversations on a legal pad to communicate with them.
Hill realized it wasn’t a very efficient way of communication.
“It wasn’t very personal either,” Hill said. “It was hard to connect with some of our deaf employees on a personal level the way we were communicating. I knew that needed to change.”
Justin Cribb, a hard of hearing employee at Palmetto Goodwill, communicates with a co-worker using ASL at Palmetto Goodwill on Oct. 27, 2021 in Hanahan. Lauren Petracca/Staff
Enter Palmetto Goodwill Executive Director Reginald Hughes, who noticed the same communication issues with deaf and hard of hearing employees as he visited different work sites around the Lowcountry. About 3 percent of Palmetto Goodwill employees working at federal contract sites are deaf.
“Statistics tell us that deaf and hard of hearing people have a harder time staying employed, have higher rates of depression and mental health issues because of stereotypes and stigmas that they face every day,” Hughes said.
The issue was only magnified during the pandemic.
“Our deaf employees felt even more isolated than normal because of social distancing and because a lot of companies went to working remotely,” he said.
Hughes was determined to change the narrative.
During the midst of the pandemic, Hughes and Palmetto Goodwill started a basic virtual American Sign Language course for the company’s employees in hopes of creating a better work environment for its deaf workers. The seven-week course, which started in September 2020, now has nearly 400 graduates.
“I feel like it has made a huge difference,” Hill said. “I was nervous at first because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sign very well. But after doing the course, I feel like I can connect more with our deaf workers and get to know them better on a personal level.”
There are an estimated 10 million people who are hard of hearing in the U.S. and about 1 million that are functionally deaf, according to the Survey of Income and Program Participation. SIPP is one of a few national surveys that regularly collects data to identify Americans with hearing loss or deafness.
Hughes said there are between 1,500 and 2,000 deaf Goodwill employees across the country. Getting supervisors like Hill to take part in a sign language course seemed like a logical step to bridge the gap.
Alexis Perez, a warehouse specialist at Palmetto Goodwill, uses his hands to sign on Oct. 27, 2021 in Hanahan. Lauren Petracca/Staff
“What we’ve discovered is that we are opening new doors for our deaf employees,” Hughes said. “It’s a game changer. I think we take for granted the challenges these folks face on an everyday basis.”
Alexis Perez, a warehouse specialist for Palmetto Goodwill, noticed a difference almost immediately when his fellow workers got involved with the sign language course.
“When I first came here to work, I felt like some of my teammates would ignore me because I was deaf or they didn’t know how to talk with me,” said Perez, whose wife Ava works at the warehouse as a computer specialist. “To see them trying to learn sign language has been great. The effort they are making to communicate with sign language makes me feel like they want to connect with me more.”
A sentiment shared by Joseph Butler, who has worked at the Hanahan warehouse for two years.
“It makes it a more friendly place to work,” Butler said. “It’s had a big impact. I feel more included now.”
The course covers basic American Sign Language. At first, Hill said he struggled to learn some of the simple motions, but with practice got better.
“I was trying to spell words out like ‘pizza,’” Hill said. “Then I realized that there’s just one simple motion for eating pizza. I’ve gotten better. But if you don’t use sign every day you lose it, so it’s something that you have to work at.”
Hughes said the course has been customized for warehouse work.
“They learn sign for things like ‘forklift’ or ‘pallet jack’ — things that you need to learn when you work at a warehouse,” he said.
Behind Spanish, ASL is the second most popular foreign language offered in the U.S.
Clemson University professor Jason Hurdich, who has been teaching ASL courses for nearly three decades, said his sign language classes routinely fill up early.
“It’s incredibly popular,” said Hurdich, who was born deaf. “The more people that learn just basic sign language, the more people will be able to connect.”
Hurdich would like to see more high schools offer ASL courses.
“I think only one or two high schools in South Carolina offer ASL,” said Hurdich, who is the only certified deaf interpreter in the state. “The problem is that there are not enough certified ASL teachers.”
It was Hurdich, who while at the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department in Charleston, suggested to Goodwill officials they start an ASL program.
“I wish more companies would copy their program,” Hurdich said.
Word of Hughes’ Goodwill ASL course has started to spread. Students from 30 states, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have enrolled over the past six months.
Justin Cribb, a hard of hearing employee at Palmetto Goodwill (left), signs with Alexis Perez, a warehouse specialist, during work on Oct. 27, 2021 in Hanahan. Lauren Petracca/Staff
“It has spread like wildfire,” Hughes said. “More and more non-profits are reaching out to us. We’re hoping to franchise the program.”
The seven-week course is not just for Goodwill employees, the public can take the class, Hughes said.
“What we’re trying to do is to empower as many people as possible,” he said.
For more information on Palmetto Goodwill’s ASL program go to: – https://www.eventbrite.com/e/american-sign-language-asl-level-two-class-registration-195084903197 [eventbrite.com]